Twenty-two foundation letters:
He ordered them, He hewed them,
He combined them, He weighed them,
He interchanged them, And he created
with them the whole creation and everything
To be created in the Future
— Sefer Yetzirah
Part I of 2:
Hebrew as the New Lingua Franca in Medicine
In the aftermath of World War II, Winston Churchill was asked about what could be done to spread Western values and principles. He responded that spreading the English language and its literature around the world would best serve this purpose. He further responded that all that is right and correct in our civilization is retained and vouchsafed in the English language. This evocative and provocative thought has always resonated with me when thinking about how we might best preserve and carry forward Jewish Civilization’ and its moral principles.
What I plan to put forward here, as part of this series of ongoing blog entries devoted to Zionism 2.0, Themes and Proposals, is a bold proposal for establishing, or better perhaps, re-establishing medical research, medical terminology and vocabulary, medical procedure, and medical scholarship within the Hebrew language. What I am outlining is how to make the Hebrew language the “lingua franca,” the linguistic ‘carrier’ and principal medium of medicine. This is a deeply serious and considered proposal, which would create a pillar of support for the Jewish State, further solidifying and greatly enriching Israel’s relations with the rest of the world. It is a project that would draw on deep historical and intellectual talents and resources within Jewish communities, and bring incomparable and possibly untold benefits to humankind. The project is anticipated to be generational in its time frame.
Establishing Hebrew as the lingua franca of medicine presents many daunting challenges and difficulties. It is a project, however, that is entirely feasible and something which we will begin to organize. It will involve launching a linguistic campaign, so to speak — not on the terrestrial plane, but on the intellectual level, and within the well-defended and demarcated English language borders of modern science and its discourses. In truth, one is not proposing here a cultural war, a forced ‘colonization’ or a takeover in any sense, but an intellectual acculturation based on scholarship, excellence, and outstanding achievement. The acculturation I speak of would be accomplished not by way of institutional fiat or hegemonic declaration, but by means of the organic growth of the institutions and framework which we plan to organize.
What is being proposed is the internal restructuring of the scholarly language of medicine and its discourse. This restructuring will arise by dint of painstaking and unceasing intellectual effort; the reshaping and reordering of the language of medicine is predicated on the “naming principle” in science and exploration. This principle is the ancient rule that he who discovers earns the right to name. It is a fair principle that everyone recognizes and respects and it has been universally applied for millennia.
The history of medicine is a history of eponyms. Through a differential rate of discovery we intend to create an entirely new geography and landscape of medical science, and to resurrect Hebrew as the basis and ‘root structure’ of medical nomenclature and discourse. This new lingua franca will arise, as already stated, naturally and organically from the process of discovery. The Hebrew-laden and inflected universal language of medicine will emerge from new scientific landscapes, which will be surveyed and mapped. Tens of thousands of new coordinate points will be logged, and rich ‘topological’ features and frontiers will emerge that will raise scientists and researchers to new heights. Newly laid ephemerides will help guide intrepid explorers toward rich seas of insight, and mountains summited will open great never before seen vistas. Novel starting points and startlingly unexpected destinations will be marked where like-minded investigators can gather, intellectually rest and share understandings and findings.
I can think of no parallel or comparable effort ever mounted, with the exception perhaps of the two-century-long effort undertaken in 12th and 13th century Toledo and Islamic Spain to translate all the known literature of the ancient world from Greek, Aramaic, Coptic, Armenian, Arabic, Sanskrit and Hebrew into Latin. This work was concurrent with the founding of the great medieval universities, and the start of conjoined and related scholarly undertakings.
How will this be done, you are no doubt wondering? How can Hebrew become the universal language of medicine? The answer is that it can be achieved by launching a coterminous research effort of unparalleled scale and scope.
This research effort will be coordinated across new institutions both inside and outside Israel. The research agenda will be unmatched in its scale and ambition. It will involve nothing less than the unraveling of entire ‘fields’ of intricate and complex problems; the specifying of countless ‘catalogs’ of new inventions, across great ‘spans’ of technological discovery. A research agenda that will include the identification of whole new phylogenies of diseases and infectious agents; the publication of voluminous pharmacopeia of discovered drugs, as well as creating massive atlases and surveys of unknown and little understood microbial bio-systems. Additionally, enormous efforts will be undertaken to sequence the genomes of the world’s fauna and flora; the molecular ‘solving’ and atomic description of uncatalogued proteomes and other molecular machines is a necessary scientific objective; these efforts will require computational breakthroughs and worldwide research initiatives-all of these efforts, pure and applied, will be coordinated and directed at the larger task of ameliorating multiple classes of disease, and to finally vanquishing the scourge of cancer and aging; the power of regenerative cellular mechanisms will also be mastered to grow new organs and tissues; new disciplines and schools of tissue and biological engineering will be created to this end. New ‘real time’ metrics and informational tools for tracking and measuring world health and sickness will also be devised. This is just a short, preliminary and partial list of the research objectives and the priorities that will be pursued.
The research plan and outlined agenda anticipates and will require breakthroughs in the computational sciences, especially in the development of quantum computers and related algorithms, and in making great strides in artificial intelligence and in the fields of simulated, augmented, and virtual reality. All of these means will be required to solve heretofore intractable problems pertaining to health and disease. The project as envisioned will work cooperatively with other institutions and hospitals around the world and will require the contributions of researchers from diverse fields and disciplines.
This immense national Zionist research agenda will be supported by establishing one of the world’s largest research foundations—for reasons of convenience, let us call it the World Jewish Foundation for Medical Research, which we would strive and ambitiously aspire to launch with an initial capitalization of 100 billion dollars. This is a vast and exceedingly large target sum. At launch the endowment would be approximately twice that of Harvard University. Yet as staggering as this sum might seem, raising it is feasible and within the current financial capacities of World Jewry and that of her friends, supporters, and allies.
Individuals attached to this project may decide to align their own ongoing philanthropic commitments and to seed this project with their own fortunes. There are many entrepreneurs in the tech community, both inside and outside of Israel, who are working on Google and Facebook-scale projects, who could single-handedly enable the World Jewish Foundation for Medical Research to reach a takeoff stage. From the returns and profits generated by new technologies, services, patents, and spinoff ventures we aim to create a fund that would within a hundred years acquire an endowment of one trillion dollars. The Israel-based World Jewish Foundation for Medical Research would by then constitute the largest concentration of bio-medical research funding in the world. At this scale, the fund’s intellectual weight and the importance of Hebrew as the lingua franca of medicine would be secure and unassailable.
The philanthropic research funds initial capital — i.e., the endowment — would be preserved with the dividend or financial return on this invested capital directed to pure and applied medical research. Assuming a conservative minimum return on the invested capital of 5%, the capital stock would generate initially 5 billion dollars a year for research and related application and development. A conclave of the world’s leading researchers — Nobel Prize winners, scientists and theorists — would establish the research priorities, goals, and all related policies of the Foundation. A board of governors representing the donors and scientific advisory board would oversee the fund and its institutional framework.
What is being proposed in this initial outline is that attendant to setting up this global institution, there would be a strictly enforced ‘language’ policy that would see the setting up of Hebrew-language medical journals and teaching programs. In addition, a resident governing body would be established of linguists, philologists, scientists and scholars to supervise the creation of Hebrew names and the Hebrew language naming hierarchy pertaining to the discovery of the following: new mechanisms, entities, procedures, inventions, techniques, and processes. Discovery and invention, as stated, grants naming rights; this is the natural and age-old privilege of the explorer and seafarer. What you find, you get to name.
Medical Research and the Zionist Project
How might one ask, does this effort to establish a lingua franca of medicine align itself with the Zionist project? The answer to this question is that it aligns itself deeply, intricately, and along long lines of development that have already been partially established. The path to our goals has already been cleared to some extent. The nascent intellectual framework has already been established. The Academy of the Hebrew Language, which was established in 1953, is dedicated specifically to this purpose: to supervising and safeguarding modern spoken and written Hebrew, and instituting guidelines and rules for adding new vocabulary to the language.
The Zionist undertaking was not just about returning to our ancestral home (a home which, in fact, we never left), but also about the in-gathering of the Jewish people as part of a deeper and larger set of intellectual, historical, and moral objectives. These objectives are not all religious and eschatological, but based on other ‘secular’ promises that are immanent in Jewish and Hebraic civilization. These promises have been discussed in hushed voices, and indeed sketched out to some extent in obscure manifestos, but they are hardly secret. There has always been a deeper dream, a profound intimation of world-historical potential that resides deep within the Zionist project. These are dreams and imaginings known to everyone but rarely voiced. Jewish people everywhere are, however, always looking for telltale signs of these ‘dreams,’ and glints of possibility in shifting events, politics, and society.
One of the great organizing elements of Hebraic thought revolves around recognizing the sanctity and absolute dignity of life; maximizing the gift of life for everyone is the fulcrum around which the entire Hebraic conception of life revolves. From this principle has evolved the deep interest within Jewish culture concerning medicine and the healing arts. This national preoccupation began in the ancient world, and became enshrined in all aspects of daily Jewish existence. Indeed, 213 of the 613 commandments that Jews are required to uphold daily and constantly are of a medical nature.
The Rabbi-physician has been a fixture of Jewish Civilization and the public face of Judaism to the world for over two thousand years. Historically, even in countries and courts where Jewish people were banished and expelled we see the ubiquity of Jewish Rabbi-physicians, and with great frequency and consistency. Jewish physicians were taken for granted in Royal and Papal courts, their distinctive countenance and visage easily detectable in portraits and paintings from the medieval period, and all throughout the Renaissance and into the modern era. Multi-generational Jewish families of great physicians were known throughout the world. Many of these famous medical lineages assimilated and converted to Christianity. Indeed, the offspring of these physicians gave rise to some of the most illustrious ‘scientific’ families in Western Christendom and elsewhere — in the Islamic and Ottoman Empires, and further afield into distant India, the Far East and the New World.
The Rabbi-physician is a model that we intend to reestablish. In fact, we propose here decisively and clearly a plan for setting up medical schools in all of the major Yeshivas in Israel and the Diaspora, and to develop these medical schools into major centres of teaching and medical instruction.
The physician-scholar-Rabbi is a long-established vocational model, a model that takes cognizance of the view that the teaching and studying of the Torah for remuneration or pecuniary reward has always been considered untoward and unethical in Jewish society. Torah study is not considered a means to an income. The practice of medicine allowed the great Rabbis to earn a living without compromising their duties or neglecting their Halachic responsibilities. One thinks here of such intellectual giants as Moses Maimonides, the Rambam, who was the personal physician of the Sultan of Egypt in the 12th century, or Rabbi Moshe Nachmanides. The Vilna Gaon, greatly learned in medicine, was consulted on all health related questions. This deep understanding and profound respect for medical knowledge, and the carefully cultivated Hebraic sense of compassion, is an exceedingly unique feature of Jewish existence and a pervasive and salient aspect of Jewish thought and culture.
Jewish Achievement in Medicine
The contribution of the Jewish people to the science and practice of medicine is simply astonishing and breathtaking. This extraordinary contribution, however, is by no means accidental or coincidental. If one uses the Nobel Prize in Medicine, or the Lasker Award, or the Wolf Prize, or the Kyoto Prize as proxies for measuring Jewry’s intellectual contribution to modern medicine, one could confidently argue that the Jewish people are responsible for perhaps as much as a quarter or 25% of the total intellectual human output. Comparable figures for foundational patents, new drug discoveries, the founding of medical enterprises or startups would likely accord and shadow these figures closely. That the Jewish people, who constitute less than 0.2% of the world’s population, literally a ‘rounding error’ in any demographic calculation, can produce such a jaw-dropping and wildly disproportionate ratio — that is, the world’s Jewish population to global intellectual output in medicine — begs many questions. It is certainly one of the statistical and demographical wonders of the world.
Jewry’s astounding contribution to medicine derives not solely from distinctive cognitive and genetics factors (which no doubt do play some undefined role), but rather from the values and priorities that are intrinsic to the Jewish religion and broader Hebraic values, carried by the language, and the textual and intellectual creations of the Jewish people. The Zionism 2.0 undertaking that we are proposing — ie., to refashion Hebrew as the ‘lingua franca’ of medicine — draws on the inherent values and the ‘moral structure’ in the Hebrew language and within Jewish Civilization generally.
Zionism has always carried within it, as previously stressed, a deeper promise; this promise went far beyond the constantly invoked century-upon-century call to re-establish and return to our own sovereign and national home in Eretz Israel. Indeed, there is a further and deeper dream, a dream within a dream, that was shared by all of the early Zionist thinkers — a messianic-type expectation. This expectation is evident in the books, lectures, diaries, letters, and the table talk of key Zionist figures: Theodore Herzl, Max Nordau, Chaim Weizman, Louis Brandeis, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Ahad Ha’Am, Albert Einstein, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Moses Hess, Leon Pinsker, and many others. They gave voice to an expectation of a plan or project, or series of projects, that could only be realized once the Jewish State had been established and had reached a certain level of development, and a certain critical mass.
This deeper dream necessitates the ingathering of the Jewish people, particularly its upper strata of poets, prophets, and prodigies. This vision has always been based on the idea that once Israel achieves a sufficient concentration of talent and ability, a singularity of sorts would occur — something utterly new and earth-shattering. This is the secular interpretation of the messianic transformation.
It was this vision of Jewish intellectual genius and possibility that partially undergirded the founding of Hebrew University, the Technion, and the Weizmann Institute of Science during the Mandatory period. This vision is evident in Einstein’s short book on Zionism, embodied in his idea of an “incremental scientific Zionism” where world recognition is earned patiently “discovery by discovery.”, and “invention by invention”. This imagined intellectual transformation, is present in one form or another in the thoughts of all the other the major founders of the Zionist movement. It is a transformation that counts on the talent and genius of the Jewish people, who, when reunited with their brethren and family from around the world, will achieve extraordinary intellectual advances.
The Jewish people have always understood their own intellectual uniqueness, their exceptionally rare talents, as well as their special moral and covenantal obligations. In fact, the tortured and specific way the Jewish people react to the Holocaust and the Nazi genocide has to be understood in terms of how the Jewish people conceive of themselves, their gifts, and the promise and potential of their children.
The loss of our children and family are grievous and hard. It involves a special grief and a special kind of bereavement for what the children of Israel may have accomplished and given to the world. It is not clear that any other people collectively mourn in this fashion. This is something that is rarely stated, but it needs to be stated in the aftermath of October 7th, 2023.
Part 2 of 2 to follow